Bookbiz: See nipples and buy Sydney Morning Herald 09/07/1997

edited by David Dale and Brook Turner

Is it just a winter lull, or have publishers become as tired as we are of headless naked women on book covers? The Herald’s Literary Editor, Susan Wyndham, reports that this year has produced only two female torsos: one on Naomi Wolf’s book, Promiscuities, the other, more oddly, on Robin Wallace Crabbe’s memoir, A Man’s Childhood. But the recent Australian Publishers Association Design Awards for 1996 were dominated by busts. Joint winner for best cover was Terry Durack’s cookbook Yum, created by Australia’s most fashionable designer Mary Callahan and featuring a (headless) woman wearing just a garfish skirt. Best designed paperback was Quiver, Tobsha Learner’s book of erotic stories, with a (headless) naked woman holding a whip. Another category winner was Robert Drewe’s novel The Drowner, with a Mary Callahan design using a painting of a (headless) naked woman nipple-deep in water. Not quite naked but close was DIY Feminism by Kathy Bail, which won the Young Designers Award with its (headless) woman wearing shorts and smiling lips across her groin.

Does this mean that when publishers don’t know what else to do on a cover, they resort to breasts? Why was the young woman on Sue Woolfe’s Leaning Towards Infinity – a novel about mathematics – not even wearing a pocket protector? “Sex sells,” says Mary Callahan, unsurprisingly. She remembers a recent book (though she can’t remember its name) that had two covers – one showing a naked woman, one a naked man. She says the female version way outsold the male.

Callahan’s own design for Justine Ettler’s 1995 grunge novel, The River Ophelia, probably started the whole trend. The photograph she used, of a seated naked woman with her head between her knees, was blown up on posters along Oxford Street and helped sell 40,000 copies of the book.

Callahan says one of her all-time favourite book covers is a classic painting of a (headless) naked woman on Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. But now she vows to help stamp out the nude clones: “I’m completely sick of them. I swore a while ago that I would never use another one.” Let’s hope Australia’s top designer has just set another trend.